Embrace the Woo-Woo

Life in Colorado was becoming routine, so Lighthouse instructor Doug Kurtz, his wife Cat, and their son Max moved ... all the way to Costa Rica. Doug's back in town for his Intro to Writing the Novel class (starting October 18!), so we caught up with him to ask about beach life, writing, and his advice for those of us just getting started on that book.

Q. You and your family recently started living part time in Costa Rica! How did you pull that off? Do you find that living there has affected your writing? 

A. My wife Cat and I are both writers whose life together has largely consisted of pulling things off—most of them narrowly and with no logical explanation as to how they happened—and Costa Rica definitely falls into that category. Long-time residents of Nosara, the place we ended up, say things either go spectacularly and inexplicably wrong for people who go there, or spectacularly and inexplicably right. We fall into the latter category. 

I’ve been described around Lighthouse as being a tad woo-woo—which I take to mean that I’m open to experiences I can’t explain, that don’t fit neatly into mainstream paradigms—and this story has some woo-woo in it. We went down to Costa Rica in 2014 to scout towns, choosing five locations and staying in each for a week to feel things out. Except for my flooding the toy-sized Daihatsu 4x4 at a river crossing and Cat’s getting a cat-sized beetle stuck in her hair, the trip was fantastic. So great that after week one we started having totally unrealistic real estate fantasies. If you could live anywhere in Costa Rica, where would it be? Cat: On a breezy hill overlooking the jungle and mountains with land to raise chickens and walking distance to the beach. Max (deigning to look up from his book): Same as Mommy. Me: Never gonna happen.

When we pulled into Nosara, Max had to pee. We ran into a real estate office to use the bathroom. As we were exiting, a woman intercepted us. “Cat?” she said. This was Sarah, the niece of Cat’s yoga teacher’s friend, whom we'd texted earlier about possibly meeting up. She and her husband owned the real estate company, and she must have heard us saying each other’s names en route to the bathroom. We celebrated the bizarre coincidence, then toured Nosara with Rich, one of her agents.

Rich took us everywhere, ending the tour at the one place Cat and I had noticed on a flyer at Sarah’s office: a fixer-upper with a one-bedroom apartment underneath. Rich’s reluctance to take us inside was clear—the place was on the verge of condemnation—but it was on a hill with sweeping views over the jungle and mountains, it was walking distance to the beach, and it had plenty of room for chickens. As soon as we pulled up Cat said, “This is it.” Her vision exactly.

You get the picture. The synchronicities kept happening throughout the process of getting the place (straight swap for a condo I bought in grad school with student loan money) to gutting and remodeling it (under the supervision of our neighbor, who’s a builder, who set me up with a crew and his wood shop and a property manager: his wife). It would take a novel to plot all the twists and turns and serendipities that have happened along the way and continue to happen as things unfold. From the beginning there’s been a sense of a bigger picture resolving into focus, of the statue being inside the block of stone (or concrete, in the case of our house). Maybe that’s my woo-woo talking, but the more we chip away at this thing, the more it reveals itself.

As for the effect it’s had on my writing: above and beyond, the new experiences, characters, emotions, etc. I think it’s reminded me that I need to stop worrying and trust that things will unfold as they’re meant to, good or bad. For me, and for most writers I know, there’s a faith element to what we do, a benefit from accepting that we’re not in control of the entire process, that things are happening behind the scenes and beyond our awareness, and that they’ll emerge into our writing if we allow them to. We still have to do the hard labor—think up ideas, write sentences, revise, etc.—and this is the chipping away, the concrete work that, if we let it, becomes revelatory of the bigger picture we’re trying to create. The more I trust that this is true, the more I’m awed by the creative process and see my ideas come to fruition in unexpected ways on the page.

Q. You've helped a lot of writers start their novels. Are there any common hurdles you've noticed a lot of your students experiencing? Any suggestions on how to overcome those?

A. For me, novel writing is largely a process of erecting hurdles—craft hurdles, creative hurdles, personal hurdles, whatever—and figuring out how to get over them. A biggie for new writers is the damaging notion that they should be able to write perfectly on the first go, the myth that this is how real writers do it. Yeah, we sit at our keyboards chugging bourbon and crank out one gemlike page after another and when they’re all in a stack the story is flawless and the novel is done and we blow our huge advances on weird outfits and yacht parties. I hate this myth. It’s harmful and ludicrous. To undertake something as complex and demanding as a novel thinking you’ll get it right on the first whack—or even the fifth—is a recipe for disappointment. Many a new writer has gone down the spiral trying to live up to their own hyped expectations. Give yourself a break. Allow the thing to teach you what it wants to become. This is a craft, a layered process of discovery and refinement. Be a wild-minded craftsperson. And have some fun, will ya? Otherwise, what’s the point? I think it’s important in intro workshops to have a free and easy mindset. Be serious about writing, be disciplined and motivated, but let the pressure off. Don’t worry so much about how good you are, how you compare, what people think, because in the end, it doesn’t matter. You’re either going to do the thing or you aren’t, and no amount of freaking out is going to change that. Take joy in the fact that you get to do this at all, this amazing act of creating from the raw material of imagination and experience something that other people can engage via the written word. Wow. Awesome. I love it.

Q. Is there anything you wish people had told you when you started writing? What advice would you have given yourself before diving into your first novel, Mosquito?

A. "Get a law degree" would have been good. Ha! No, I’d suck as a lawyer. All those rules. I think what I said above would have helped: not worrying so much, second guessing, all that stuff. If you’re gonna do it, you’re gonna do it, and getting up in your head just gets in the way.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I just finished a novel that’s been long in the works—like so long that my agent for Mosquito is out of the biz. I’m waiting for edits from my writing buddies, hoping to slash 10,000 words and then off it goes. I love the sense of the unknown at this stage, the sense that anything could happen: fame, fortune, outfits, yachts—or nothing at all. I’m fine either way; it’s the thing itself that drives me now, and I’m on to the next project, reading a lot, taking notes, staying free and easy while new ideas percolate.